The European Commission has defended its track record on corporate lobbying and transparency, after accusations it used the financial crisis to increase its powers while pursuing a big business agenda.
A report by watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory severely criticised the EU’s executive for its closeness to corporates.
“On top of this, the Commission has fought tooth and nail to avoid effective regulation of lobbyists, including by opposing a mandatory register [of lobbyists],” the report said.
Kenneth Haar, co-author of the report, said, “The Barroso II Commission is the European Commission at its worst. With the crisis, it has managed to expand its competence, and has used its new powers to impose policies that fit neatly with the interests of big business.”
The current transparency register of lobbyists is voluntary. 450 out of the 750 groups lobbying the EU on finance and banking reform are not on the current register, the report said.
The disclosure requirements are also too limited, the report said, before praising MEPs for making registration a pre-condition for lobbyists to be given entry badges to the European Parliament. The European Parliament has called on the Commission to make the register mandatory by 2017 (see here).
Commission denounces ‘campaign-driven’ report
The Commission, which described the report as “campaign-driven” and guilty of distorting “some obvious facts,” blamed a lack of support from member states for the failure to create a mandatory register. There is a basis in EU treaties to create such a register but it would require the unanimous support of member states in the Council of Ministers, it said.
“At present, the Commission and Parliament still try to convince the Council to join them even in the voluntary register. There is however no majority in the Council for this at present,” said Antony Gravili, the spokesman for Commissioner Maroš Šef?ovi?, in charge of EU Inter-institutional relations.
A mandatory approach could narrow the very broad scope of the current Transparency Register, which would not cover the organisations already included in the current voluntary approach. “Mandatory does not mean better,” he said.
He said the current register included more than 6,500 organisations and about 25,000 individuals, a success. An estimated 75% of all relevant business-related organisations and about 60% of NGOs operating in Brussels have registered, he added.
Commission advisory groups dominated by business
The Commission’s expert groups of advisors on legislation are dominated by big business representatives, the report said. The structure of the groups needs reform, it added.
Three quarters of advisors on the groups had links to financial corporations, CEO said. The report said that the “footprints” of banks’ influence on legislation such as closer banking union were easily detectable.
Olivier Hoedeman, coordinator and co-author said, “The outgoing Commission leaves a sad record of putting big business at the steering wheel of a large number of EU policies. This stresses the urgency for reform.”
Gravili replied saying, “The Commission and commissioners listen of course to all stakeholders; this is good policy making. But, the Commission and commissioners take autonomous and independent decisions based on their convictions of what is best for Europe and Europeans.
“It seems that the organisation called Corporate Europe Observatory disagrees with the policy choices made and they are entitled to do so, but we see it differently.”
The report claims the Commission gave in to business influence across a series of policy areas, including finance, trade, climate change, agriculture and economic policy. It claims that current rules on revolving doors – EU staff working for lobbying organisations while on sabbatical for example – are also too weak.
Gravili said, “With regard to the Transparency register and its voluntary character and the alleged “revolving door” phenomenon, there is nothing new in the report. The organisation has expressed the same views over the last five years.”
‘The Commission is criticised. We have to live with it’
The report accused Commission President José Manuel Barroso of doing his best to brush the 2012 Dalligate under the carpet (more here). EU Health Commissioner John Dalli resigned following cash for influence allegations involving Dali and the tobacco lobby.
“How did the Commission respond? Business as usual,” the report said.
It added, “There is a need for a broader political effort to med things at the top of the EU. One such effort should include a full stop for further competences to the European Commission, a deepening of democratic transparency for the Commission and indeed a roll back of its powers. As it stands the Commission is a disgrace to democratic traditions in Europe.”
Gravili answered, “This Commission has proposed and steered major reforms for the European citizens in times of an unprecedented crisis. When it comes to transparency and lobbying, this Commission has one of the strongest set of rules in place which exist in the world.
“Hardly any other organisation or government is under such scrutiny and so transparent about its own work. Still the Commission is criticised. We have to live with it.”
The register is a database of lobby firms, individuals, NGOs and other organisations working to influence EU legislation in Brussels. It currently has around 6,000 registered organisations.
In June 2013, the European Commission and Parliament appointed a joint working group to review the transparency register.
The group held a series of meetings starting in August which culminated with a final meeting on 12 December.
- End 2016: Parliament's target date for the European Commission to put forward a proposal to make the register mandatory
- 2017: Target date for the next full review of the Transparency Register